LUMBERTON — Mary Frances Lowery has been living in the woods of West Lumberton, and anywhere else she can find shelter, for more than two years. She said she was put on the street when the “drug house” she was living in was shut down and all of the residents evicted.
“It’s the cold weather that really bothers me now,” said Lowery, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. “Otherwise I do pretty good. I don’t drink anymore and there are a lot of folks around here who know me and help me out.”
Lowery was one of several homeless people identified Wednesday as part of the region’s annual Point-in-Time Count — an effort to determine how many homeless people there are in the area — and offered a chance to come to the Lumberton Christian Care Center to get a hot meal, shower, and have a warm, safe place to spend the night. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires a Point-in-Time Count be conducted each year during the last 10 days of January, and counts took place statewide Wednesday night.
The count provides a snapshot of who is homeless on a given night, said Emily Locklear, executive director of the Southeastern Family Violence Center in Lumberton and coordinator of this year’s count. This information can then be used to plan local homeless assistance programs, tailor programs to meet an area’s existing needs, and bring about public awareness of homelessness.
The count is important because the numbers are used when applying for grants, such as those that benefit veterans, the homeless, and poor people, Locklear said. The local count was administered in Robeson, Bladen, Columbus and Scotland counties by the Southeast Regional Commission on Homelessness, a part of the N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness, and by volunteers representing several agencies and organizations, including Robeson County, Southeastern Family Violence Center, United Way of Robeson County, Sacred Pathways, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Lumberton Christian Care Center, which typically requires all guests to undergo a background check, opened its doors for the night free of restrictions. My Refuge, on West Fifth Street in Lumberton, gave out meals. The Pembroke Boys and Girls Club was available for use as a shelter. Ride-alongs were held throughout the county to locate the homeless and either take them to a shelter or have them fill out surveys and provide them with food, clothing and care packages.
Counting the number of homeless people in a large, rural county like Robeson has proven to be difficult. The annual effort relies largely on people’s willingness to participate in surveys.
“The homeless are an unseen population and data concerning them is unsubstantiated,” said Millicent Collins, grant administrator for Robeson County and a county representative for the Point-in-Time Count. “It is important to bring to the forefront that Robeson County has a homeless population larger than ever this year after Hurricane Matthew. More people than ever are displaced, homeless and unemployed.”
The homeless population is made up of people who have a lot of pride and become easily embarrassed, Collins said.
“These people are not looking to take what they consider a free handout,” she said. “But we are actually offering a hand up to our fellow man. We are trying to give them a hand up on life.”
A total of 57 homeless people filled out the surveys, said Carol DeLoach, the finance manager for Southeastern Family Violence Center and a volunteer who spent several hours traveling the county looking for homeless individuals. Most surveys were filled out where the homeless were found, with few of them electing to be taken to Lumberton or Pembroke for shelter.
DeLoach said 13 of those offered the chance to spend the night at the Lumberton shelter accepted the offer. People participating in ride-alongs found 10 locations, including in woods and beneath bridges, where homeless individuals are staying. Those who are inhabiting the sites, however, could not be located.
“We think the weather contributed to these sites being vacant and fewer people coming to spend the night at the shelter,” she said. “In warm weather more people are out and about.”
Seventeen homeless people spent the night at the center last year when the count was taken, said Clementine Thompson McCormick, the former director of the Lumberton Christian Care Center and a current board member.
“The count is important because it helps get grants,” she said. “I know for a fact that the results of the count have helped get some people off the streets.”
But Nathaniel Love, a 41-year-old homeless man who has been on the streets for about four months, isn’t sure the annual Point-in-Time Count results lead to the type of assistance homeless people need.
“I appreciate it, but holding this event once a year is not helping the problem,” he said. “There are programs available for veterans and abused women, but there are no programs for single men.”
Love agreed, however, that financial resources need to be found to help those who are homeless and without jobs.
“It’s hard to find work and expensive living on the street,” he said. “Living on the street i,t is hard to save any money.”
Locklear said surveys are also being provided to those displaced by Hurricane Matthew and still living in hotels. She said any homeless people identified in the next few days can be surveyed and included in the county’s count.
“We just ask them where they slept on the night of Jan. 25,” Locklear said.
Surveys collected in Robeson County will be added to those collected in Bladen, Columbus and Scotland counties and then forwarded to the state Coalition to End Homelessness. The coalition will review and evaluate the surveys and forward numbers to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.